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Metropolis Ensemble Interview

Posted on 03 May 2007. © Copyright 2004-2021 Composition:Today

C:T talks to Andrew Cyr, Artistic Director of the New York-based Metropolis Ensemble, whose concert "There And Back Again" takes place at Angel Orensanz Center in the Lower East Side on Thursday, May 24, 2007 .

The Metropolis Ensemble at Angel Orensanz Center, NY
Tell us something about your background.

I grew up in Fort Kent, Maine, which is a Franco-American border community on the most-northern part of the continental U.S. My family was not musical, except my grandfather, who would entertain the family on Sunday afternoons with his boogie-woogie improvisations on a beat-up upright. I started playing trumpet early on, which then led to pipe organ studies, and conducting, both choral and orchestral. Hardly the future I envisioned when growing up. I was into sports, – a fanatic golfer and downhill skier, and won the Junior Amateur Golf Championship of Maine when I was in high school. From a remote corner of a remote state, my music studies have taken me from France to Montreal, and I now live and work here in New York City.

Tell us about the Metropolis Ensemble, how it was formed, and its raison d'être.

Ideas for a chamber orchestra that performed new and older music side-by-side in a mutually supportive way and featured the very best emerging talent, especially from chamber music circles, have percolated in my brain for years. While I was at a conducting retreat I met composer David Schiff who was so enthusiastic about my vision that I began to think “what if?”

You know how, once in a while, you go to a party that is just fantastic? Everything works: you know the hosts well, there’s a great spread, plenty of drinks, and you go from one fascinating conversation to another, and when you finally leave, it’s with a warm sense of heightened awareness and exaltation, and the thought that “I’d like to have more evenings like that!” Well, that’s the feeling I hope to inspire in people who attend our concerts. The Metropolis Ensemble is a “downtown” chamber orchestra, in style and substance, very far removed from the hallowed, if rather straight-laced, halls of Carnegie or Avery Fisher. Obviously, top-notch performances of great music of all eras are paramount to our mission. But we also take great care to make sure to choose atmospheric, off-the-beaten path venues that resonate magically with the performance. We are incredibly fortunate to be able to perform at the Angel Orensanz Center in the Lower East Side. If you’ve never been it’s well worth a visit (during one of our concerts, I might suggest). It’s a reconstructed gothic synagogue and the candle lighting, intimacy, and acoustic create an enchantment that you just have to be there to experience.

Our concerts are serious music-making ventures, but we want our audience to relax and have fun, too. We serve complimentary wine during intermission and after the concert, a perfect time to interact with friends, make some new ones, and meet the composers and musicians of the Ensemble.

It was important to me that the Metropolis Ensemble be committed to presenting new or recent music at each concert. Musical art is dead if we relegate it to a museum culture, and I have found that contemporary music can be even more engaging to younger audiences than the classics which are laden with “significance.” New music provides all audience members the opportunity to connect freshly with the musical substance; no one having heard it before, everyone’s on equal footing. It makes for a dynamic artistic atmosphere.

I also wanted the group to play a role in educating young people about the joys of music. We have instituted a music education program in PS 11, a Title One school that, as a result of government budget slashes, doesn’t have much of an arts program – and no music program after grade two – at all. We have engaged a young composer to teach elementary school kids about the rudiments of composition. So we have seven, eight, nine year old kids actually composing their own music! It’s such a different tack than most school music programs take, but it is working spectacularly. The students are thrilled by the opportunity to exercise their creativity, they learn so much more about how music is actually written than they would if they were just learning a song flute or the violin. At the end of the year, our young composer/teacher takes the kids’ work and weaves it into a short composition that is performed for the entire school during an assembly. You can only imagine the pride these kids feel when their compositions are heard by all their peers and teachers, along-side other works from the repertory. It’s really quite emotional.

Does the group focus on playing specific types of music?

In a word, no. We do have a mission to focus on contemporary music which we craft as the main selling point of our concerts, much as it was in the time of Mozart and Beethoven. But we have chosen works from Monteverdi to Copland that exemplify some of the avant-garde tendencies already present in music of the distant, and not-so-distant, past.

How do you go about programming your concerts?

We center our concerts on the premiere of a major new work. In our upcoming concert, for example, we will present the New York premiere of a new concerto for mandolin by Avner Dorman, a young Israeli composer. In choosing other pieces to accompany it, I tried to program music that will give the audience member a real sense of theme, whether poetical, atmospheric, or purely musical, and bring out the meanings inherent in all the pieces.

How do you respond to unsolicited work- do you give feedback? Do you ever commission new work yourself?

Currently, I do not respond to unsolicited work, but I do commission new work and do want to foster the efforts of young composers. I recently commissioned a new work by Ryan Gallagher, Conspiracy of Curtains, which we premiered in October of 2006, with help from a grant from the New York State Council for the Arts. I have also just commissioned a new work for piano and chamber ensemble for our 2007-2008 season from Ryan Francis, who is currently the teaching fellow in our music education program. As our organization grows, I want to establish a workshop festival and continue to expand our capacity to directly commission new work by emerging composers.

What do you see as the role (intended and actual) of new music in the modern world?

New music is us. That isn't to say that Beethoven isn't us as well, but contemporary music has the potential to “hold the mirror” up to our times. New music, in a sense, is about creating history as it is looking toward the future.

As I suggested above, contemporary music can serve to break down barriers between the more experienced music lover and the neophyte. I therefore try to program music that works “as music’, that is artistically vital, yet approachable; not academic.

Is it a good time to be running a new music ensemble?

Absolutely! And what’s great is that we’ve so many wonderful colleagues in the city doing just that, creating networks of players, composers, and audiences and doing projects and programming that achieves very high artistic levels. Critics and musical thinkers like Alex Ross are taking note of this wave of new groups proliferating in the city, and I think that larger music organizations are trying to create new models to reach out to younger audiences. Our concerts have thus far always nearly sold out, and it's clear that there's a niche for us, and for ensembles that feature new music in a variety of ways. Here in New York, at least.

Tell us about the Ensemble's current projects

Our next concert is coming up in late May. We're featuring the U.S. Premiere of Avner Dorman's Mandolin Concerto, alongside Golijov's The Dream and Prayers of Isaac the Blind, the Chamber Symphony Op. 110a by Shostakovich, and Bartok's Rumanian Folk Dances. We are especially proud to be able to premiere the mandolin concerto, a wonderful work by someone who will certainly be making a tremendous musical impact in the decade ahead. Avi Avital, a mandolin virtuoso, will perform the work – he commissioned the piece from Avner in 2006. The whole concert is organized around a theme of music inspired both by folk music and the reanimation of memories. The music in Dreams and Prayers, led by the phenomenal clarinetist, Tibi Cziger, is a homage to communal prayer and mystic sight, with each movement evoking the languages of the Jewish people throughout their history, ancient Arameic, Yiddish, and Hebrew. Avner Dorman’s work will open the concert, and in a way, his piece will connect all the works together, as his style of writing embraces so many of the successful elements that you see these other composers employ, whether structural or through powerful evocation of atmosphere, image, or emotion.

What are your plans for the future?

To continue what we do, produce new projects that keep our organization growing by connecting our musicians and audiences to the leading composers of our times. I'm also working on an exciting project with one of our lead musicians, Arnaud Sussmann, to co-curate a chamber music series to give our musicians, who mostly hail from chamber music circles, a chance to present some exceptional works for 1-5 musicians and to continue to explore unique venues here in New York. With our education program, my dream is to build on our current success at PS 11, and establish an instrumental music program that will eventually lead to the founding of an after-school orchestra. My hope is to start with the violin, in grade three, provide students free instruments, classes, etc, and then just build and add a grade after each year and continue. In five years, we'd span grades 3-8, and have enough of a program that would be able to expand into viola, cello, and bass. Then we have an orchestra at a school where there was no music program to speak of!

How can people find out more about you?

Our website,, is a terrific place to start.

Interview by Composition:Today © Copyright 2004-2021

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